What is assessment? Why do we do it? These might be questions you ask yourself in despair as you wade through piles of books or input columns of numbers into your school’s data system, however the answers to these questions actually go to the heart of teaching and learning itself; what are we doing and why are we doing it? Assessment is not an extra punishment added to the end of a good day’s teaching, it is an integral part of teaching and learning, where you check your students’ progress against your vision.
What is assessment?
Assessment, from the Latin assidere, ‘to sit beside’, is any formal or informal moment when you draw up alongside a student and assess their progress. How do you know they are making progress? You need to have clearly defined learning outcomes which themselves feed into a larger vision for why pupils are learning RE at all. Learning outcomes should test specific knowledge and skills related to the subject matter in hand, they should offer pupils the opportunity to interrogate the subject matter and conduct some analysis of their own.
A curriculum which systematically builds up understanding over time can be termed a progression curriculum. A progression curriculum is not only designed to develop and grow students’ understanding, it also makes assessment straightforward. A progression curriculum provides a point to aim for, a goal. In order to check students’ progress we need to know where they are heading. In a progression curriculum, small pieces of information deliberately feed into a larger whole, allowing students understanding to grow in sophistication and complexity.
Small learning outcomes might be built into a larger question. Take this question, asked of KS2 or 3 pupils: Should non-Muslims be allowed on Hajj? This requires some factual knowledge of Hajj, but draws on wider information and asks for students’ analysis. Students could answer in different ways but they will all use the same information on Hajj to answer. They will be taking ownership of the information and rather than simply repeating disconnected facts. They will be weaving their own considerations through the information to form a larger whole.
A question such as this shows that assessment can both check on students’ understanding and skills, as well as push them into more analytical modes of thinking.
Does this apply to younger children? While too much information can overburden younger children and cause confusion, they can offer something of their own thoughts as well as show their factual understanding in age-appropriate ways. For example:
- Talk about whether gifts of money are better than gifts of time or attention. This might crop up in a lesson on charity and giving.
- Discuss why religions build places of worship when they believe God is everywhere. This could be part of the discussion when learning about a place of worship.
Questions such as these require children to repeat and recall RE-specific information, while also offering some of their own ideas and thoughts. A group of 4 children might answer differently using the same information, showing you that they are thinking for themselves as well as taking on board the information.
For all ages, the idea of progression is important. Key ideas can be taught at an age-appropriate level, but coherent curriculum design means pupils will revisit them again and with increasing sophistication. Progression shows you where pupils are not just in relation to one lesson or unit of work, but to where they will be in future.
Assessment should test pupils’ progress along the road to this overall vision. Progression is a good way to think about planning to meet one clear and coherent purpose of learning. You know where you are going, but how do you get there, and how do you check progress on the way? A progression curriculum deliberately builds pupils’ knowledge and skills build over time, so connections can be made and understanding can grow in richness and depth.
A good place to start is to consider your curriculum according to how far it enables pupils’ knowledge and skills gradually build to achieve your vision for learning in RE.
Information, taught at an age-appropriate level, will gradually build to allow a deeper, richer understanding to grow. For example, children in Year 1 might talk about Christians celebrating Jesus’ at birth at Christmas. They might use words like ‘special’ or ‘unique’ to describe Jesus. They might make a ‘present’ card and draw a baby Jesus inside. This is not the language you would use at GCSE, but it is an early building block of information about Christian beliefs. By Year 3 or 4 pupils might be learning words like ‘Incarnation’, breaking down the word to understand its meaning. By Year 4 or 5 pupils could learn some of the historical context of Jesus’ life; his cultural, religious and political influences. By Year 6 or 7 pupils could learn about the different Gospel authors’ different concerns, or address a philosophical question about Christian beliefs, such as ‘if Jesus was not crucified would we have Christianity?’ Understanding builds systematically and pupils are empowered to think at increasing levels of challenge and at greater depth.
Progression requires a goal. You progress towards something. A progression curriculum is therefore a good way to measure your work against your vision for RE in your school. How well does teaching and learning enable your vision to be achieved?
To answer the question ‘what is assessment?’ requires a consideration of curriculum design, progression and questioning.
Assessment does not exist as a separate entity but is part of the process of learning.
Why do we do it?
In a GCSE or SATs-free universe would we assess? We would because we still need to check our students’ progress. However the demands of external exams and internal data collection can cause teachers to lose sight of the crucial role that assessment plays in teaching and learning; to check pupils’ progress towards a goal.
We need a goal in mind in order to assess progress. The new Ofsted framework in fact cements the connection between systematic curriculum design (intent) and how pupils are enabled to explore and master the curriculum (implementation). The outcome, their increased knowledge and skills, is the final part of this journey (impact), the outcome of effective planning, teaching and assessing. The following section offers more information on Ofsted and assessment.
Assessment and the New Ofsted Framework
Inspections in the new framework will work to four deciding factors when coming to an overall judgment: (1) quality of education, (2) behaviour and attitudes, (3) personal development, (4) leadership and management
Assessment is part of the quality of education. This is itself is envisioned in terms of intent, implementation and impact.
Intent – teachers and subject leaders will need to state the purpose of learning in a subject, to explain why pupils are learning this subject. Inspectors will consider what knowledge and skills pupils gain through the curriculum and how the curriculum develops understanding that is increasingly rich and critical.
Implementation – inspectors will consider how far planning, teaching and learning, including assessment, meets curriculum aims. Therefore assessment is an integral part of curriculum design, planning and teaching. It is the time taken to check pupils progress in relation to a goal. Assessment tests curriculum design and measures pupils understanding. It is part of teaching, not separate.
Impact – inspectors will consider the impact of the above measures through comparable national measures such as literacy and numeracy and the progress pupils can be seen to make. This will be seen in their work, in talking to pupils and in the classroom. Assessment is to check pupils’ progress in relation to a learning goal, it should not overburden teachers or exist separately to curriculum design and implementation. A systematic, coherent curriculum, that builds understanding and is implemented in an engaging manner, will have a positive impact on pupils’ growing understanding.
Reference: Ofsted (May 2019) School Inspection Handbook, No. 190017, pp. 41-